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I speed-walked to one of the last meetings I had in the office before we all transitioned to working from home, not because I’m rude, but because I’m autistic. I was hoping to avoid Tyler popping over to tell me more about his deck renovation project.
Once safely settled in the meeting room on a garishly-overstuffed velour settee, I grit my teeth against a hellish cacophony of sound coming from our in house coffee bar down the hallway. A whistling grind, the dulcet tones of our espresso machine running at the high whine of a Tuesday afternoon, screeched down the hall. Coworkers jostled for good seats, cramming onto corner tufts around me with high fives and snippets of, “Actually, wait for me, don’t start, I have to run to the restroom!” and “Is everyone here now?” and “We should be getting started.”
My colleague Elaine chose that day to debut a new perfume, a lightly-intoxicating blend of gardenia, musk, and mandarin, and she was seeking candid feedback on whether or not the orange note was too orangey. Regarding this, I was uncertain; I leaned instead under the desk to pet Bailey, a 60-pound Portuguese water dog. He set his head on my knee, and I felt cold drops running down my shin from his curly whiskers. He was known around the office to be a bit of a “bad boy!” (He rolled in a puddle at lunch.) Markus pushed him further under the table, cooing, “Aren’t you? Aren’t you my bad boy?”
We wrangled the agenda back on track and were halfway through a review of quarterly key performance indicators when the worst happened: We diverged into a conversation about genetic variation. Somehow, suddenly, my colleagues were eager to discuss olfactory-receptor genes. Some thought cilantro tastes like soap, some thought it doesn’t, and I thought, “This is my personal version of Hell on Earth.” My manager rapped his knuckles on the desk in front of me, “Joni? Are you paying attention?”
I am paying. I’ve been paying. Attention is currency, and like most autistic people, I’ve had an expensive and humiliating road to gainful employment. This road is marked by a series of debilitating attention-related embarrassments. My professional successes are overshadowed by the emotional and mental exhaustion of navigating a sensorily-overwhelming world that first demands our attention, then punishes anyone who gives it at the wrong time or in the wrong quantity, according to nuanced social rules that are rarely written, often arbitrary.
My career is mile-marked by jobs I lost after going nonverbal (temporarily losing access to spoken communication, often confused with failure to pay attention). Every workday, pre-pandemic, I maneuvered the invisible politics of a loud corporate office for several hours, fending off autistic meltdowns that can last for minutes or hours. Most autistic people don’t like anyone labeling the meltdowns that follow sensory or attention overload as “tantrums,” but I don’t know how else to name these behavioral episodes; they can include falling asleep, falling down, glazing over, acting out, throwing things, freaking out while hitting myself, and (yep) biting. Biting a coworker can get you fired, so I do my best to avoid any sickening confluence of sensory inputs, most of which are entirely out of my control.
By last March, multiple HR requests to mitigate burnout with “work from home days” had been denied. Then COVID changed everything. While we can never write off the losses and real traumas this pandemic has wrought, we should acknowledge its silver linings, thin and fleeting as they may be. Working from home to help beat the pandemic, autistic employees are thriving. This year, neurologically-typical (“neurotypical”) people have been forced to experience what people whose neurological development is atypical (“neurodivergent people”) experience as a daily lived reality: reduced opportunities to spend time together and a struggle to find social connection.
A sudden shift to remote work has led to an explosion in innovation in live streaming technologies, group chatting, and video-calling interfaces. Widespread adoption of digital communication platforms is normalizing what autistic people have been asking for for years: accessible, productive, inclusive remote work options. Emerging cultural and professional norms around video conferencing technologies such as Zoom, Webex, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams cater to a variety of autistic challenges and help avoid the total mental shutdown that is often associated with burnout.
Burnout is one of the reasons autistic American adults have higher rates of unemployment and underemployment than adults with other disabilities and the general population. As an autistic person, finding and keeping a job can feel impossible at times. “But this year, autistic job seekers are doing better than ever,” said Dr. Kerry Magro, a board member at the National Autism Association. “Commuting to work is one of the most significant barriers to employment for autistic people. Driving and using public transportation can be sensorily-overwhelming experiences. You never know if there’s going to be a bus, train, or Uber that arrives late. Many people in our community focus on structure and routine, so the ability to create our own structure and routine at home has been incredibly beneficial. People don’t realize how much more inclusive quarantine has been for autistic employees. Having the ability to turn off your video camera is wonderful. To have the opportunity to talk and not have to worry about maintaining perfect eye contact is another huge benefit.”
Of course, these privileges are only extended to those who can find and hold down white-collar jobs. For autistic product marketer Shringar Pangal, being able to keep a weighted blanket on her lap while working remotely helps manage stress and anxiety. “I couldn’t walk around the office going to meetings all day with a giant blanket in my hands. I’m not crazy.” Using comfortable, familiar aids (like blankets) and other assistive devices is much easier in the privacy of home. “I can be on or off-screen as I choose,” said autistic therapist Hillary Crow. “That helps me regulate my energy throughout the day and avoid burnout.”
In person, most people analyze a complex web of visual, auditory, and sensory signals to facilitate conversational exchange; this process, often referred to as “turn-taking,” is a universal characteristic of social interactions. Many autistic people lack a basic understanding of how and when to take turns in conversation, which can have devastating social consequences.
In the Wild West of Zoom, where conversational norms are still being established and some of us are still learning how to use our tools, meeting facilitators can grant access and indicate exactly when to unmute and speak. Hosts can model social norms of turn-taking and selectively mute anyone who appears to be steamrolling. This function can create equity in a conversation where some group members belong to a dominant social group and others are more marginalized.
For autistic medical school student Laura Z. Weldon in Kentucky, remote calls simplify turn-taking. “I like not having to navigate when to speak in 20 different social interactions before class, all while filtering out dozens of other environmental sounds,” she said, “Now I feel more empowered to speak up because the rules of engagement are clear.”
Professional communications may also be increasing in clarity now that employees are learning how to work from home. Working across multiple time zones and managing employees whose lives have been upended by a pandemic, wildfires, economic crashes, locust swarms, and election-related stress, requires concise, direct communication: something autistic people are known for. “Subtle messaging doesn’t work on Zoom,” said Shringar Pangal, “Suddenly, and for the first time ever, I’m being praised for my communication skills.”
Similarly, Amy Root, who works in healthcare in Oklahoma, says shifting norms have emboldened her to ask for accommodations she’s needed for a long time. “This year, I’ve felt more empowered. I’ll request an audio-only Zoom call so I can move around, which helps me focus, or I’ll request live captioning in large meetings.” Recently, technology company Otter.ai announced the launch of live captioning for conference calls and webinars to improve accessibility in online spaces.
Undoubtedly, the disruption COVID has wrought on established communication norms will take decades to untangle. Welcome as recent developments are, only time will tell how they will impact neurodivergent job seekers’ ability to get and keep a job. Pre-pandemic, 85% of college graduates with autism couldn’t find work. Autistic job seekers who are further marginalized because of their class or race may find employment even harder to come by, and of course, many autistic people experience difficulties with communication and executive functioning that would prevent them from finding work they can do from home.
However, COVID might change all of this. As more industries learn to convert in-office roles to work-from-home jobs, accommodations might be easier to come by. The advantages new media bring to autistic people might be extrapolated to other marginalized communities such as deaf people and single working parents. Digital media use for human connection may lay the groundwork for new, more inclusive social structures. Online communities’ social norms (such as live captioning) may eventually render back to offline communities after the pandemic.
We can only wonder what effect these developments may have on the future of human connection. Maybe we never needed the lattes and in-office ping-pong tables. We often think of bliss as excess, perhaps derived from hedonistic pleasures, but at times, our bliss can be quite simple. Communication is a balm, a solvent, and a fundamental human right. For those who have been ostracised from society for so long — what a unique joy to finally connect.
Joni Whitworth is a producer and community organizer working in creative tech.
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